Book review: 'Lenin's Kisses' by Yan Lianke

Nothing exemplifies the absurd aspect of China's economic growth like the rash of museums and theme parks sprouting nationwide...

by Yan Lianke
Chatto & Windus

Nothing exemplifies the absurd aspect of China's economic growth like the rash of museums and theme parks sprouting nationwide: the Watermelon Museum in Beijing retells Chinese history through the fruit; Mo Yan's hometown, Gaomi in Shandong province, reacts to his Nobel Prize with pride and a plan to sell tickets for gawking at his old hairbrushes and soap.

Yan Lianke makes abundant use of such ludicrousness in , in which an official lusting after promotion recruits a long-isolated village of the disabled to perform in a travelling show. They are raising money for the construction of a lavish mausoleum for Lenin, whose embalmed body the official plans to buy from Russia as the ultimate tourist attraction.

Yan struggles to make his meaning known through many contortions. Extensive footnotes detail the village's apocryphal past from the Ming dynasty to the Cultural Revolution. At their best, they link the present drama to a recurring historical narrative of exploitation by official authority and ideology. Just as often, they feel clunky and contrived. The English prose often gives the reader pause. In local dialect, the village's name means lively or happy - a contrast with how the official gets on with his wife, who asks for a divorce. Translator Carlos Rojas meets this challenge with "liven" or "enliven" as in: "Is this because I haven't been enlivening you recently?"

Some warping is beyond Yan's control. He reports careful self-censorship but the government still frequently bans his works. After was published in Chinese in 2004, he was asked to leave his job writing for the People's Liberation Army. The novel was not banned, though, and won prestigious national awards.

The satire of modern China is obvious. Local officials plot their next promotions on the backs of witless villagers, who are peacefully prosperous when left alone. Confrontations with authority are shaded with sexual intimidation - the main female characters are all taken advantage of by officials or the offspring of such couplings. The personal, political, financial and sexual all commune as is only possible when the institutional boundaries between public and private are so negligible.

Yan conjures a captivating brand of Chinese magic realism from simple exaggeration, compounding the bald fabrications of officials to propel the unusual into the extraordinary. In one instance, when the village's quadruplet dwarf girls are not available, the county gives the village's nine other dwarf girls a single residency permit so they can perform as the nonuplets, so tiny they can be stuffed into two bags onstage and tumble out singing with voices so shrill they pop balloons.

With roots in folklore and political rhetoric, this incremental embellishment is used in the novel to induce belief in fantasies as it erects them, seducing officials, villagers, and the reader by turn.